Jesus and the Law

MATTHEW 5:13-20

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,”

declared Jesus as He stood atop a hill and preached. The image is reminiscent of Moses first delivering the Law to the people of Israel.

The rest of the Sermon on the Mount hinges on this passage. So it seems extremely important that we stop and ask a few very basic questions: What was Jesus trying to say? What was He trying to get people to do? How do we see the Law as we look back on it in light of Jesus?

And, perhaps most basic of all:

“What is the Law?”

Modern readers have a certain idea in their heads when they think about the law. They think of a list of rules that govern the behavior of society. Obeying the rules in this list is what it means to “keep the law.”

And, true enough when we look back into the Old Testament, we find exactly that – a list of rules (613 of them) handed down by God and meant to be kept. Don’t misunderstand – keeping these rules was an important part of what it meant to keep the Law to a Jew, but that isn’t the whole story.

What a first century Jew would call the Law wasn’t just this list of rules, but also the first five books of the Bible (which, alongside the “Prophets”, make up the Hebrew Scriptures). These first five books are collectively known as the Law (In Hebrew, the Torah). This collection of writings consists of much more than a list of rules. It contains the entire history of God’s relationship with Israel. And that is important in understanding what Jesus was trying to tell these first citizens of His new Kingdom.

If we consider the “Law and the Prophets” to be the whole Old Testament, and the “Law” to be the first five books, what could Jesus possibly mean by “fulfilling” them? If we think of the Law as just a list of rules, perhaps fulfillment just means to “obey the rules”, which Jesus certainly did.

But Jesus is speaking of something much deeper than the individual rules. It is important that we see these rules, not on their own, but as just one part of God’s Covenant with Israel. The rules and commandments acted as the stipulations (ethical requirements) that Israel was to follow in order to remain faithful to the Covenant God had made with them. By obeying these rules, the people would reap the blessings that come from Covenant membership (Lev. 26:3-13; Deut. 28:1-14). By keeping the rules the Covenant would achieve its full potential, meaning Israel would serve its true purpose in the world (its vocation), which is summarized in Exodus 19:5-6:

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my Covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mind; and you shall be to me a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.”

Israel was meant to be a nation that was unique in the world; a nation dedicated wholly to God, and privileged to dwell with God as His holy, set-apart people. But Israel failed to keep their side of the Covenant, and so God allowed them to reap the curses that came from failure to keep the Covenant, finally resulting in exile from the Promised Land.

Throughout the Old Testament however, even in the midst of Israel’s failure to keep the Covenant, God promised that one day He was going to do something new. He was going to institute a new Covenant. One that would not be a list of rules etched into stone, but would be written on the hearts of His people (Jer. 31:33). No longer would God’s people struggle to obey, because God would put his Spirit in them and cause them to walk in his ways (Ezek. 36:27). In other words, God declared, “you have failed to keep the Law, so I will keep it for you.”

More than four hundred years after those Old Testament promises, Jesus stood up on a mountain and declared that in his coming they were being fulfilled. He was not only there to live a perfect life and “keep” the Ten Commandments, but also to fulfill the ultimate purpose of the Law: to raise up a holy people, a kingdom of priests, who would be fully reconciled to God through His blood. A people who would begin living in a radically new way as a reflection of God’s glory.

This is exactly what Jesus is describing in verses 13 through 16 where He declares that the mission of his Kingdom people is to be salt and light in the world. We are to fulfill the Covenant vocation of Israel, to project the blessings of God outward through our very lives and words, and to draw others into the Kingdom.